As a man prone to bouts of depression, unemployment is nothing new to me, but the changes that the benefits system are currently undergoing have made the experience something cruelly different from what it has been before. The harshest change to benefits is the ‘sanction’. They are apparently intended to incentivise work and punish those […]

As a man prone to bouts of depression, unemployment is nothing new to me, but the changes that the benefits system are currently undergoing have made the experience something cruelly different from what it has been before.

The harshest change to benefits is the ‘sanction’. They are apparently intended to incentivise work and punish those who ‘abuse the system’, but in reality they take those who are vulnerable because they are on benefits, or those who are on benefits because they are vulnerable, and punish them. Not all of them, I suppose. I am sure that those who see benefits as an easy con could easily play the new sanction system, but they must be very few, and must cost the taxpayer very little compared to people at the other end of the social spectrum who decide to cheat the system through tax avoidance or fraudulent expenses.

My first sanction was within two weeks of making my claim, when I asked my ‘advisor’ not to be aggressive, after she shouted at me and wagged her finger like I was a badly behaved dog because I couldn’t prove that I’d looked on their office Twitter account, amongst other things. While filling in the paperwork, after I asked to speak to someone else, I could hear conversations around the job centre, with a claimant saying, “Can I have that in writing, please?” and the ‘advisor’ responding, “Does that mean you’re refusing to keep your part of your job seeker’s agreement? That’s a sanctionable offence!”. “No, I just want you to write down and sign what you just told me.”

I quickly found an apprenticeship and somewhere to live in Sheffield, which meant that I was still claiming Universal Credit, but in an area where Universal Credit has not yet been rolled out. I wasn’t allowed to cancel that claim and move onto the old JSA system. I had to claim in Sheffield, where the staff don’t have access to the computer system that my claim is on. They are currently rolling out a new system that no-one understands. And when the staff don’t know what to do, I get sanctioned.

I was sanctioned for not telling them I’d moved house, because the Manchester people wanted me to tell the central phone number first, who didn’t want to be told about it until my claim had been resolved by Sheffield, who could do nothing without Manchester dealing with the claim first. No-one knew what to do. Then I was told that I had been sanctioned for not magicking up a solution to this impossible problem.

They did, eventually, give me a meeting to attend, when they cancelled all previous sanctions, but then they sanctioned me for coming to the meeting on the day they’d told me to, which was three days before it was written on the computer system. Not that they ever gave me a letter telling me to come. I had to chase that up myself.

After four months of these sorts of repeated and ongoing loops of frustration on my part, back-pedalling on theirs, and confusion on everyone’s, they have agreed to pay me. But they won’t backdate it all because I have taken this long to give them the evidence of my rent and my new apprenticeship, although I have spent the last four months trying to give it to them, with them refusing to take it, or people refusing to tell me who to send it to, or losing the paperwork. For the one month that they said they would pay me the housing part of this benefit for, they said that because I got paid for my apprenticeship once in February and once in March, they count this as being paid twice in one month, so they only gave me £46.

I try to work out what to do, but I can only hear, alternately, the Benny Hill theme, the Magic Roundabout theme and the word ‘omnishambles’, over and over again. I have no idea, but nor do the staff, nor the people who make the rules. Why sanction me?

Jack Unsworth